Bikram Yoga – A controversial journey to fitness and flexibility

It sounds like a cult, I concluded after several weeks of my mum talking through her new found passion for Bikram Yoga. The room is 40.5 degrees, beginners have to take one of the back two rows and there is silence in the room. No one is allowed to leave for an hour and a half, even if they opt out of the stances. But I was pleased that she had found something to get passionate about following retirement from her job and ‘career family’ since the age of 18. Largely, I dismissed it – until several weeks on and my mother was bouncing round like a 20 year old. Suddenly I felt old, awkward and unfit. She was constantly beaming and happy from the inside out, despite the occasional complaint that everyone else was so much younger and her weight remained the same. This is completely about perspective – the reality was she dropped two dress sized in the first few weeks and as I later discovered the classes are in fact made up of all ages – but you have to actually stop to pay close attention to realise as they ALL have bodies and mannerisms of people in their early twenties. I’ll take this opportunity to dispel any beliefs that this is a ‘female’ gendered activity – designed by and for men you will find plenty of blokes, gentlemen and down right fit fellas – again of all ages filling the studios depending on when you take classes. 

You will realise by now that I did finally venture to the studios myself. Taking guidance I headed for the St James’s SoHot studio in central London. I don’t think I’ll ever forget entering the obscurely situated yet incredibly welcoming venue behind the Station only 15 days ago – but now having opened the door, removed my shoes and scanned in for class 15 times it already feels like a lifetime ago. So – have I joined a cult? The Mail on Sunday certainly classed it as a ‘fitness cult’ lead by a scandalous man straight out of a Bollywood film surrounded by hoards of young girls (again, with a little more attention it is very possible the crowds the journalist witnessed were actually much older than he realised). I posted the etiquette, which I find highly amusing on my Facebook page and a friend summed it up as ‘sounding like a cult’ – that word again.

We have the option to ‘honour a series’ in that a group of stances weather floor, balance or stretch which we push ourselves to our personal limits each time, dripping with sweat to compress and release blood flow throughout the body  can be acknowledged by briefly placing the hands together. The postures all have names (it would be rather odd if they didn’t). The trainers spend the whole 90 minutes talking through an almost identical ‘mantra’ that focuses the mind on each and every muscle in the body, the breathing and pushes participants to go beyond their previous limits. Sometime it works, sometimes the mind and body stubbornly resist. At the very end of the session the trainer talks us through recovery breathing and leaves the room with ‘Namaste’ – which the room respond to. Admittedly I didn’t know exactly what that meant until now. it is as follows:

The gesture Namaste represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra. The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another. Nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore,namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.” (http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/822)

So that’s a little on the spiritual side – but so far as I can tell that’s as spiritual as it gets… to really understand what the implications of this are it’s also vital to know the meaning of a ‘cult’. Google provides the following:

cult  

/kəlt/

Noun
  1. A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
  2. A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
    Synonyms

worship – religion – adoration

There is a particular figure involved – the inventor of the 26 poses series Bikram Choudhury. So he’s a celebrity from the fitness world – since when was that classed as ‘sinister’? It’s certainly not a practice of devotion to this man. The closest leaning may be that all trainers have themselves been trained by him at his own centre, but that seems rather like good business practice and a safe method of delivering the training. There are no objects or worship involved and Birkrams’ name in my experience has so far only been used in humour ‘And we know that the Bikram way is – we do it again – two sets each time’ or ‘as Bikram says, the body is NOT at temple, it is a toilet and it needs to be flushed every day!’. Not a religion, but when you get past the pain, frustration and endurance to reap the benefits (from day one) it does begin to feel like the body needs to be reset or ‘flushed’ from the awkward stances that daily life demands (especially in the dense bustled crowds of London). The addiction is very unexpected and is induced through a range of draws to the activity which I will begin to detail over coming months. 

In summary, the lifelong discomfort of my Scoliosis is dispelled and the correction in my spine is tangible, with a strong inward curve forming that I can now feel when I lie on my back, I am sleeping better and waking up early with enough energy to keep me going until late at night, I am completing everything I have squeezed into my life and things are happening apparently by themselves with minimal stress. I realise I am making eye contact with more people out and about and my introverted tendencies are giving way to newfound interest in everything going on around me. I can bend really far in more ways than I knew possible and my hands don’t get abnormally cold any more, despite broken heaters in our coldest ever, snow filled March. I never feel miserable (sad at times, maybe, but not miserable) and I am even getting tidier and far better at time keeping. These are only my experiences, but I joined with one motivation and that was to get a grip before heartache set in – I’ve ridden out the storm oblivious and uncovered more sources of satisfaction than I thought possible. I signed up to the 30 day challenge 5 days ago (so by the time I’m complete I’ll have actually done 40 days) but the real challenge will be the inevitability of days in the future that I can’t get to the studios. Like I say, this has been a tremendous journey so far and there is so much to discuss, but for now I’m content in concluding that if Bikram Yoga was cult, I’d be right there. 

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